Life, Scripted and Otherwise
Darlene Hunt is an actor, writer, comedian and creator of the new, critically acclaimed and award-winning Showtime series “The Big C.” The show is about living with cancer starring Golden Globe-winning actress Laura Linney, who plays Cathy, a suburban mom struggling with cancer. The series debuted in August 2010 and much of the first season revolved around Cathy trying to ignore her cancer as if it would go away. The second season saw her finally fighting back, with gusto and humor.
The idea for “The Big C” came in 2001 in a discussion between Hunt and producer Vivian Cannon. The two were brainstorming ideas that they didn’t think a network would buy, and Cannon said she thought it was high time for a cancer comedy. Hunt was immediately intrigued and started exploring ways into the topic--how to understand cancer in a sensitive but comedic way, an appropriate blend of light and dark.
In an interview with CFYL’s Marie Doezema, Hunt said she wanted to write a show that explored a hard topic--cancer and our own mortality--in ways that hadn’t been done before. Part of the inspiration for the series came from Hunt giving birth to her first child and gaining insight into the fragility of life and threat of mortality; two things which ultimately helped her write the series.
What was the impetus for writing a show about cancer?
I believe that writing is very healing, and I like to explore subjects that resonate with me personally. I’m personally not a cancer survivor and I haven’t gone through cancer treatment. But I’ve been touched by cancer by other people in my life having the disease.
And I found my way into this subject in terms of being a mother. I had just had my first baby (in 2007) and I became very painfully aware of my own mortality when I looked at that little baby’s face and thought, “Oh, I want to be with you for the rest of your life.”
The show really is about becoming aware of our own mortality. Some people go out much earlier than a long lifespan, which seems particularly tragic and unfair, and some people live a very long life, but either way there’s a ticking clock for all of us.
So having a baby made you think about how closely life and death are connected and how fragile both are?
That’s exactly right. And it’s funny, because in one of the early pitches an executive warned me not to use my experience as a mother as my inspiration, saying that I couldn’t compare myself to a cancer patient in that way. But when I talked to cancer survivors, they didn’t blame me for having that feeling. They said it was similar to their own wake- up call when they got their diagnosis and realized suddenly, “Oh, time is less than I thought it was, and what am I going to do with this time?” So no, I haven’t been the cancer patient thus far, but we’re all more alike than different in this world.
How do you use comedy to explore difficult subjects?
I consider myself a comedian and a comic writer. Occasionally in the comedy world I’ve been told to make it funnier because I like to go to dark places. But if it’s not a little dark it’s just not funny to me. The reality is it’s hard for me to write anything without the joke being real close by. That’s just how I experience the world--I like to laugh, I like to look at the brighter side of the dark. We’ve all seen some pretty dramatic cancer movies, but in my original pitch for the show I asked, “Who needs to laugh more than a cancer patient?” Our goal is to make people laugh and cry in every episode.
How has healthy food worked into the plot of the show?
We’ve shown Cathy (Laura Linney) preparing some healthier foods since her diagnosis, and her son and her husband commenting on that. There’s a scene where the character Sean brought over some organic juices for her because he had been researching what were some good cancer fighting juices. We want to keep that up front in the show, because it’s such a common subject in terms of fighting cancer, and we want to acknowledge it.
What’s the link between healing and creating something--whether through writing or cooking?
I love and adore food. I didn’t grow up with any particular skill or education on how to cook and I’m from the South, so I just sort of fry things within an inch of their life. I’m a vegetarian, though, so at least I try to fry healthier things. But I desperately want to find a good six weeks -- or six months, depending on what my life is like -- and go to cooking school. I think food is such a great hobby, because everyone needs to eat. If you can engage in the joy of preparing that--from going to the farmers market, which I personally love, to the joy of preparing a meal and perhaps sharing it, making it social --that’s a beautiful and fun thing. I hope to educate myself more and pass that along to my girls.
I think food is like writing. I would like to be able to treat food the way I treat writing--as place I escape to. If I’m feeling down and I can put my head in a project and write a few jokes and laugh to myself, it really turns my mood around. I think you can do that with cooking too.
How have people responded to the show?
Most of the response has been positive, and occasionally when I read a negative review or someone writes something online about what they didn’t agree with or that upset them, I think that’s okay. First of all it implies that they watched it, which I think is a huge success, and that they got involved in the lives of the characters and the subject matter. The show is really meant to entertain, and if it inspires and is thought-provoking on top of that, that’s huge. But the bottom line is that I mostly just want to entertain and provide a few unexpected laughs and a few sobs, because a good cry feels good too.
How important do you think this show is in bringing cancer to the forefront of discussion? Do you think there’s still a taboo that needs to be broken?
I don’t know if I could speak to that intelligently, not having been a member of the cancer community prior to the show. And also, when you’re inside of something, it’s hard to be objective. But I will share with you what a survivor of lymphoma shared with me: After he was diagnosed he found himself feeling embarrassed and not wanting to tell anyone. That was part of the inspiration in the first season for having Laura Linney’s character keep her cancer a secret. In terms of the show, I hope that there’s enough dialogue so that people don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed when they get diagnosed.
We really strive to show a lot of perspectives and borrow from real life experiences and real life stories we’ve heard. I also hope the show is revolutionary, not only in terms of the subject of cancer, but also in giving [writers and producers] permission to take bigger risks blending comedy and drama. My bigger agenda is to get characters and subjects on TV that people can relate to in a real way.